person walking through a forest

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost
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In "The Road Not Taken," what does the "sigh" in Frost's poem signify? Is it a "sigh" of relief or regret?

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It is significant that the speaker, presumably Frost himself, says that he shall be retelling this story about the two roads "ages and ages hence." That suggests hundreds of years. He must either be thinking that there is life after death or else that his poetry will be read ages and ages after his demise. The phrase "ages and ages hence" also strongly suggests that the choice he made to take one road rather than another was of great significance not only for his own life but for the world. In other words, the choices that all of us make in life have infinite repercussions; they affect our friendships, our careers, the people we marry and the children we may have, the futures of those children, grandchildren, etc., and even the non-futures of the children we might have had if we had chosen a different road. The reason he is telling his story with a sigh is probably because he is remembering what a long, hard road it was he chose. Any old man looking back on his life, with all its disappointments and mistakes and regrets is likely to tell his story with a sigh.

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In "The Road Not Taken," the speaker sighs in the last stanza:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
 

The fact that the speaker is still thinking about the road not taken would be a sign of regret. He is still thinking about the other road--the road he didn't take. Two roads diverged in a wood and the speaker could not take both roads. From the very beginning, the speaker states that he is sorry he could not travel both roads:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

The speaker wanted to take both roads and he regrets not having been able to do so. He is sorry that he could not take both roads. He stood long examining both roads. He was torn between the two roads. 

The speaker has doubts that he should ever come back because "way leads on to way." Then he states that he shall be telling this with a sigh. There is a certain amount of regret. The speaker is telling this with a sigh because he could not take both roads. Clearly, he is torn between the roads. The road not taken is still on his mind. That is a sign of regret. If the other road had been a bad choice, the speaker would not be dwelling on it. Also, the speaker would not be "sorry [he] could not travel both."  

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This could be argued either way, but I am going to say the poet's sigh indicates regret, and I will explain my reasons for saying so.

The most common interpretation of the last line of the poem is that the poet is probably content to have taken the road less travelled. That is why we often advise people—particularly young people—to take the "road less travelled," or the more unconventional choice, to live a rich life. The poem itself, however, is ambiguous on this point, meaning one can read the last lines as either approving or disapproving of the less-travelled road:

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Was the difference positive or negative? We don't know. We only know it has made "all" the difference, for better or for worse.

Assuming taking this road made a negative difference and the poet knows he definitely should have taken the other road, then the "sigh" would surely be one of regret. The poet says at the beginning of the last stanza,

I shall be telling this with a sigh

somewhere ages and ages hence

But what if the story had a happy ending, and the road less travelled made a positive difference? Wouldn't the sigh then be one of relief?

Not necessarily, in the context of the poem. The poet is imagining telling this story with "a sigh" at some time "ages and ages hence." In other words, he imagines sighing in the far future—not next year, but "ages and ages" from now. He will be in middle or old age and looking back over his life when he sighs. We know from psychology that one of the attributes of middle- and old-age is regret. No matter how good our lives have been and how many good decisions we have made, there is always something to regret. That is simply part of being a human being; we can't do it all, and one path pursued, no matter how wonderful, means another path is not pursued. The poet recognizes this truth when he says earlier in the poem that, much as he would like to return and take the other path to see where it would lead, "I doubted if I should ever come back." It is directly following that line that he says, "I shall be telling this with a sigh." The sigh suggests the narrator realizes that as he ages he will regret roads not taken, paths not pursued. This might be a bittersweet regret, but it will be regret all the same. This regret underlies so much poetry, a lament that we are not immortal; our time runs out and our choices form us in one way rather than another.

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